Learn about letter formation and letter construction from a school-based occupational therapist.
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What’s the Difference Between Letter Construction & Letter Formation?
When I work with kids on handwriting in my therapy practice, I differentiate between letter formation and letter construction. Both important skills, but very different.
I refer to the appearance and legibility of letters as letter formation.
Are the letters easy to see? Did the child use clear marks on the page? Did they use enough force on their writing utensil? Are there any reversals?
I refer to how the child actually produces each letter as letter construction.
Where did they begin writing each letter? Do they make the strokes of each letter in the correct order, or do they use an inefficient approach?
Good letter formation is important so we can actually read what kids are writing. But, if we give a handwriting book to a young child, walk away, and then return to find the whole page completed – nice and neat with pretty rows of perfectly formed letters…we might be missing something.
The child may have completed the entire handwriting page with adequate letter formation (i.e. the letters look nice and neat), but they may have used poor construction the whole way through- starting letters at the bottom, forming letters from right to left, or even going back and filling in missing parts of letters after the fact.
When kids practice making letters the wrong way over weeks and months, they form bad writing habits that are very hard to break. And while they might be able to get by for a little while in preschool and kindergarten, the smooth sailing doesn’t usually last.
As kids move into first grade and beyond, handwriting expectations in the classroom get more and more intense.
What happens when kids have poor habits related to letter construction?
They simply can’t keep up. There is a reason we teach kids to form their uppercase letters from the top down and that there is a specific approach to making each letter…and the reason is – it’s faster and more efficient! Poor construction equals slow, inefficient writing.
How to Practice Letter Construction & Formation
Letter Construction Apps
Apps that provide auditory/visual feedback as kids trace and form letters. My favorites are iWriteWords and Little Writer because they have fun pictures, fun sounds, and they require kids to restart the letter if they’re not forming it the right way!
When practicing writing or tracing with kids, draw “starting points” for each letter with a crayon or marker, or place a small sticker to indicate where the child should start the letter.
Verbalize the Process
During writing and tracing practice, sit with the child and verbalize what they are doing as they form each letter using the same consistent terms each time. I use some of the terminology from the Handwriting Without Tears program – big line, little line, big curve, little curve, and slide (diagonal line) for the strokes of each letter. As the child makes the strokes, I narrate what they’re doing (e.g. for letter H – “Big line down, big line down, little line over.”)
Use a hands-on approach, allowing children to build letters using Wikki Stix, wooden pieces, or this cool play dough kit from Handwriting Without Tears. Check out this fun letter formation activity from Lemon Lime Adventures!
Appeal to the Sensory Systems
Practice writing and tracing letters using proper formation in the sand with a stick or a finger or in play dough with a pencil. This provides great tactile and proprioceptive feedback to help kids remember the proper strokes for each letter.
Appeal to the tactile system by having kids trace letters cut out of sandpaper or other textured craft paper. Or trace over learning materials with puffy paint or a hot glue gun to make them more touch-friendly!
Check out these great Multisensory Writing Activities from Mama OT
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Jennifer Baue says
Is there any good data to back up that bottom to top formation impacts speed? I agree that it does, but havent been able to come across any….
Colleen McDonald says
I have not found data either. Bottom to top “construction” means pushing, rather that pulling, the writing implement; that means increased resistance of the writing surface, which could reduce speed and increase fatigue, though perhaps minimally. Bottom to top could actually be a little more efficient, when you can start at the bottom and finish at the bottom, so you are not constantly “raising”/ transferring your pencil from bottom to top… but would that have much of a functional impact??? Top to bottom, left to right , “construction” may be convention, as that is the way we read. Seems to me the most important things are using consistent language in teaching “construction” and developing automaticity— it’s less of a problem (maybe not a problem at all) if someone consistently starts at the bottom than if someone forms the same letter in many different ways, since automaticity is indeed a factor in speed.
Alicia H says
Do you know of any apps for Android devices that require proper letter formation? The two you mention are only in the Apple store.
My kid hates writing and I am pretty sure part of the problem is forming letters wrong and holding her hand wrong. Her school has been no help.
Jennifer woody says
While you do so indirectly, can you speak specifically to the practice of some preschool and kindergarten teachers having students trace sentences when they have yet to learn individual letter construction? Is there any instance when tracing sentences would be appropriate, especially for children with delays?
I am a kindergarten teacher and I have to say that I see no reason why kids should make letters one way over another, meaning bottom to top or vice versa. If it does not interfere with their fluency or legibility what should it matter? I too have been looking for research and some hard data to convince me there is a “right” way. Who can help me out?
I’m wondering the same thing. My 6-year old is an excellent reader and has neat, legible handwriting. However, he is left-handed, holds his pencil differently, and forms many letters bottom to top. It doesn’t seem to be affecting him in a negative way though. I’m willing to work with him on this and re-learn the “right” way if I can actually find any concrete research that there is a right or better way. I think his directionality differences are just what’s comfortable to him as a left-handed person. Would love some feedback.
Hey, I have a student within my class (Grade 4) and his handwriting is almost unreadable. I have noticed that he forms all his letters incorrectly. Learning support within the school say that he is in Grade 4 and there is nothing we can really do about it, as he is now set into his own ways. Is this correct? Should I just focus on teaching him to write neater using his own letter formation or teach him correct letter formation?
My child is left handed and 7 years old, his school allowed him to form letters incorrectly and now he’s developed bad habits for at least 3 years… should I work on correcting this or just move on to cursive?? Please help!!
Charles Goodman says
I think we should teach our children in a new way to know it.Well, maybe our old ways do not suitable for them anymore and they feel difficult when they learn. friv